Hilda Hidalgo

Mayor Cory Booker and Hilda Hidalgo, 2007. (Newark Public Library)

Hilda Hidalgo was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico and graduated from the University of Puerto Rico before coming to the United States to continue her education at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Before making her way to Washington, however, Hidalgo spent time with a friend in Texas to work on improving her English. “It was in Texas,” Hidalgo later recalled, “that I first was refused service in a restaurant and it was the first time I confronted American racism. It was a totally new experience, but it was a traumatic experience for me. And I realized then, at that point, that I had to do something to really address that issue.”

After earning her Master’s Degree at Catholic University, Hidalgo came to Newark at the age of 32 to begin a career as District Director of the Girl Scout Council of Greater Essex, a position she maintained for five years. During this time, Hidalgo also organized tenants in the city’s public housing projects, specifically the Hayes Homes. She also worked with Americans for Democratic Action, and was involved with George Richardson’s independent political campaigns.

In 1965, the War on Poverty arrived in Newark in the form of the United Community Corporation (UCC), the city’s Community Action Agency. Hidalgo served as an assistant secretary and became an active voice and leader in the UCC, particularly regarding the needs of the city’s poor Puerto Rican and Spanish-speaking communities. To address these needs, Hidalgo helped form the Field Orientation Center for the Underprivileged Spanish-Speaking Residents of Newark, NJ (FOCUS- Newark). That same year, Hidalgo ran with George Richardson on his United Freedom Ticket campaign and took part in efforts by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and others to demand a civilian police review board after Lester Long was fatally shot by a Newark policeman in 1965.

In 2010, the City of Newark renamed the intersection of University Avenue and New Street, on the campus of Rutgers University, in honor of Dr. Hilda Hidalgo. (Jennifer Brown/The Star-Ledger)

In 1969, Hidalgo served as secretary for the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention, which was organized to nominate the “Community’s Choice” for candidates in Newark’s 1970 mayoral and city council elections. The Convention’s efforts led to the election of Newark’s first Black Mayor, Ken Gibson, and first Puerto Rican Deputy Mayor, Ramon Aneses.

In the 1980s, Hidalgo formed the Puerto Rican Congress and joined in coalition-building efforts with African American organizations to help get Latinx people elected to public office. During this time, Hidalgo was issued several death threats and once had her car torched.  

During her years in Newark, Hidalgo co-founded and presided over Aspira of New Jersey, La Casa de Don Pedro and the Puerto Rican Congress. Additionally, Hidalgo was co-founder and Board member of the United Community Foundation. She was also on the board of the Newark Urban League and United Community Corporation. She chaired the first Puerto Rican Convention of NJ and served as Vice-President of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

References:

Dr. Olga J. Wagenheim Statement Honoring Hilda Hidalgo for the Newark Public Library’s Maria DeCastro Blake Community Service Award, 2007.

 

Who’s Coming In, Who’s Going Out?

World War II kicked off the second Great Migration, as African Americans from the South sought better living conditions in Newark and other cities. Between 1940 and 1950, the African American population of Newark increased from 45,760 to 74,965—growing from 10.7% to 17.2% of the city’s total population. In many ways, this population influx marked a tipping point for recognition.

For most of Newark, the depression ended. “Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job. The New Jersey Afro-American wrote in 1941 that while contracts for nearly a billion and a half dollars in government defense orders have been placed with firms in New Jersey, the Urban League finds that these firms have steadfastly refused to hire colored workers.”

 

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“Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job.
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But some African Americans did find employment. Jobs for blacks in the Newark defense workforce improved from 4% in 1942, to 8.8% in 1943. With the overall economy booming, Newark’s downtown stores began hiring some African Americans as elevator operators and janitors. Large restaurants hired blacks as chefs, cooks and waiters—they could work, but not sit down to eat. The war years helped enhance the prospects of some, while still denying prosperity for the many.

Whites Begin to Leave

Around 1947, the white middle class started deserting Newark for the suburbs, along with the businesses that sustained them. The post World-War II boom was good for businesses for a while, but factories, schools, and streets had been neglected during the war. Overcrowding was a problem, especially in the ghettos. These conditions made the suburbs very attractive as alternatives to Newark.

The G.I. Bill of Rights and FHA loans made it easier for whites to buy a house, and brand new highways built by the federal government with taxpayers’ dollars made it easier to drive those new automobiles to the suburbs, in Essex County and further west. These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.

 

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These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.
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But Newark’s heterogeneous ethnic character remained intact in the early and mid-1950s. Newark was described as follows by writer Joseph Conforti:

The Germans had given way to the Irish who in 1950 shared political power with an Italian and a Jew. The ethnic division of the city could also be observed less directly. Many occupations were ethnically identifiable: the police and fire departments were overwhelmingly Irish; the construction trades were Italian; the merchants were largely Jewish, the small luncheonettes were Greek, the large businesses were owned and operated by WASPs, skilled craftsmen were likely to be German, and the factory operatives were Irish, Polish and Italian. Even the city’s taxicabs had ethnic identifications…yellow cabs were operated by the Irish, 20th Century cabs by Jews, Brown and White cabs by Italians, and Green cabs by blacks.

Newark’s Changing Demographics

Ghettoization continued in Newark. By 1940, the Third Ward (today’s Central Ward) alone contained more than 16,000 black residents. By 1944 nearly one third of the apartments and housing in the black areas were below the standards of minimum decency. Some houses still had outside bathrooms.

The slums were among the worst in the nation. The situation was particularly grim for African Americans, clustered on “the hill” just west of the Essex County Court House. Public Housing did not help a lot. There were 7 low-income projects finished before the war, but by 1946, there were 2,110 white families and only 623 black families in the buildings. Four of the projects housed no black people. The best low-rise public housing, such as Bradley Court, was reserved for whites; while the poorest units, such as F.D.R. Homes, were reserved for blacks. Ultimately, the majority of African Americans were steered into the growing number of high rise public housing which just happened to be built in the center city where black people had been confined beginning at the turn of the 20th century.

 

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Four of the projects housed no black people.
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The 1950 Census showed the trend in population increases for blacks, and decrease by whites. Newark’s total population rose only slightly from 429,760 in 1940 to 438,776 in 1950. Black residents had increased from 45,760 to 74,965—more than a 60% increase. When newspapers took a look at the faces of misery, increasingly they were black.

Even though the city began hemorrhaging jobs (250 manufacturers left between 1950-60; 1,300 manufactures left during the 1960s), the more dramatic change in the city’s socioeconomic structure was the rapidly changing composition of the city’s population.

African Americans were rapidly become politically and economically obsolete in a city where they would soon be in the majority. Segregation and discrimination by race and class defined Newark’s offering to the city’s newest immigrants.

Listen to the people speak about their experiences as newcomers to Newark below…

Hilda Hidalgo explains the racial polarization of Newark in the 1960s and its impacts on the city’s Latinx communities. — Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Letter from Hilda Hidalgo

Letter from Hilda Hidalgo

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Letter from Hilda Hidalgo urging participation in the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Statement of Demands to the UCC

Statement of Demands to the UCC

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Statement of demands issued to the UCC by 30 “Spanish-speaking” community leaders. The document was drafted by Rev. Fr. Mario and Hilda Hidalgo. — Credit: Newark Public Library

Explore The Archives

African American Repairman

African American Repairman

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American repairman at work. — Credit: PSEG

22 Clayton Street Stove

22 Clayton Street Stove

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

African American Stoker

African American Stoker

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American stoker at work. — Credit: PSEG